Low-Income or Seniors in Poverty

Approximately 4.7 million people – or 13.8% of the population – lived with low income in 2012 (Statistics Canada, 2014). After 20 years of reductions, Canada’s elderly poverty rate rose between the mid-1990s and late 2000s, particularly among older women (The Conference Board of Canada, 2013). Drawing on data from Statistics Canada, Shillington (2016) reports that, low income among Canadian seniors has been steadily rising, from a low of 4% in 1995 to 11% – or one in nine seniors – in 2013. For seniors living alone, the poverty rate is particularly high.

Over the same period, the rate rose from 9% to 28% —almost one in three persons—for single women seniors, and from 6% to 24% for single male seniors. Many other groups of seniors are also more likely to experience poverty, including seniors with less education, seniors with intermittent work histories and low wages, older immigrants, Aboriginal seniors, seniors with chronic health problems, and seniors with disabilities (National Seniors Council, 2009).

Poverty and low income have been associated with experiences of loneliness and social isolation among the general population (Stewart et al., 2007). However, there have been few studies that focus specifically on older adults. Yet, older adults are more likely to live with low income than most other age groups, and low income has been associated with poorer health outcomes and lower quality of life indicators among seniors (Wister and McPherson, 2014). Thus, seniors living with fewer financial resources are faced with a number of potential negative outcomes which have been linked to loneliness and social isolation (Keefe et al., 2006; National Seniors Council, 2014a and 2014b).

After controlling for a large number of other risk factors, de Jong Gierveld et al. (2015a) found that income exhibited a weak but statistically significant inverse association with loneliness among seniors. A review of the literature on the social participation of seniors carried out by Raymond et al. (2008) also revealed that income is negatively associated with isolation, and a representative study in Belgium revealed that social isolation among seniors with low income was 29 percentage points higher than those with higher income (Vandenbroucke et al., 2012). Low income or poverty may often work in combination with other related risk factors to place people at ‘multiple jeopardy.’ One recent study has established a connection between low income, social isolation and nutritional risk among older adults, and these associations were especially strong among senior men who were members of a racial minority group (Locher et al., 2005). Research has also shown that low income is often associated with low self-esteem, which can inhibit the search for new social contacts (Pinquart and Sörensen, 2000).

In addition, MacCourt et al., (2011) found that poverty limits the ability of seniors to have adequate housing, while Gilmour (2012) found that retired seniors living in low income housing were more likely to be lonely. A report on housing for marginalized people in France found that aging and poverty put seniors at risk of isolation. While inadequate housing not adapted to the needs of seniors can be a major contributing factor to social isolation, adequate housing can be a major preventative factor (Haut comité pour le logement des personnes défavorisées, 2012).

One researcher also found that seniors in public long-term care (LTC) facilities were more likely than those in private facilities, where residents have greater economic and familial resources, to experience isolation (Trépied, 2012). Living in a deprived neighbourhood can also promote loneliness, especially among seniors who are living alone (British Columbia Ministry of Health, 2004). Seniors living on a low income in deprived neighbourhoods may have safety concerns related to leaving their dwelling (Abbott and Sapsford, 2005). This can be particularly challenging since many seniors look to their neighbourhoods to meet both practical and emotional needs (Freiler, 2004). Gentrification may also have an impact on increasing loneliness. Research in rural Canada, for example, found evidence of loneliness among long-time residents of newly affluent communities who were no longer able to take part in activities and organizations and for whom financial challenges limited social connections (Keating et al., 2013).

Older people who live alone are more likely to be near or below the poverty line than other older people. These seniors, in turn, face greater barriers to social participation, particularly if they live in rural or small-town environments, where there are often fewer social and leisure activities available (Kobayashi et al., 2009). One study of low-income senior women living alone in British Columbia found that, while their support networks were comparable to other groups, they relied more heavily on family support; greater efforts were required to diversify both their informal and formal sources of support since small family networks can be quickly overwhelmed (Ryser and Halseth, 2011).

Conversely, high income has been shown to be associated with less loneliness, possibly because those with higher income have commercial networks that can be used for social opportunities and because they are also in a better position to return support from others (Pinquart and Sörensen, 2000). Early evidence from the English Longitudinal Study on Aging has also shown that isolation decreases as wealth increases (Shankar, 2015). In the General Social Survey, Statistics Canada found that, although household income does not have a large influence on the number of close relatives and friends, Canadians in the highest income bracket ($150,000 or more) have larger networks of “other” friends (double the size of those with a household income of $20,000 or less) (Sinha, 2014).

In recognition of the complex interaction between poverty, isolation and other risk factors, some policymakers have adopted a comprehensive approach toward addressing social isolation among seniors with a strong economic dimension. France, for example, recently adopted a law related to societal adaptation to aging that focuses on reducing social inequality and isolation (Assemblée nationale, 2014). The law builds on previous efforts to address social isolation, including the national mobilization against the isolation of seniors, a program which was embedded in the national plan to fight against poverty and for social inclusion (Serres, 2013). (Prior to the adoption of the law, a study on the social benefit for seniors found that the majority of recipients were socially isolated, and that the benefit was not sufficient to lift them out of poverty (Chaput et al., 2007)). In a related vein, Greenfield et al. (2015) argue that age-friendly community initiatives have the potential to address multiple issues related to older adults’ health and wellbeing, including economic insecurity and social isolation (the concept of age-friendly communities is discussed in Section 7.1.).